WASHINGTON — In early September, the Republican National Committee launched AmericaWeakly.com to take a humorous jab at what Congress would look like if the Democrats gained control. Mocking the minority party, the site features funny snapshots of notorious liberal legislators and satirical accounts of what their agenda might resemble. It's like the Onion -- but an Onion in which every joke is on the Democrats.
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And Democrats aren't the only party being ribbed online. AmericaWeakly was a kind of counterpoint to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's FudgeReport.net, a site modeled after the Drudge Report that skewers Republicans.
Cheap to run and easy to put together, Web pages like these "spoof sites" are popping up in a number of competitive races this cycle. They first surfaced in Senate campaigns, but are trickling down to House races, too. With House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, engaged in an increasingly tight race against Mary Jo Kilroy (D), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee went up with ThePryceIsNotRight.com last month, prompting visitors to play the game, "You Paid the Pryce."
But Washington-based campaign committees aren't the only groups producing spoof sites. Internet-savvy campaigns themselves are also in on the act.
Virginia Davis, campaign spokeswoman for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said the spoof site targeting Democratic opponent Bob Casey, WheresCasey.com, has "become part of our messaging strategy." Indeed, Santorum continues to ream Casey for ducking debates, along with his duties as state treasurer, during his campaign.
The kind of messaging found on these sites seems directed primarily toward the press. DSCC spokesman Phil Singer explained that his organization wants "the mainstream media to pick up on the points we're making" on the spoof sites. To that end, they function as a clearinghouse for opposition research with a jocular kick. Singer's counterpart at the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, spokesman Dan Ronayne, said he also likes to refer journalists to the sites for information.
Still, some campaigns say the intent of their spoof sites is to draw in activists and channel their excitement into volunteerism or fundraising.
"We are throwing red meat to the base," says Kevin Druff, who designed GeorgesJourneys.com for Virginia Democratic Senate nominee James Webb's campaign. The site was part of the Webb camp's early strategy of drawing attention to Sen. George Allen's (R) trips to primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, presumably to consider a presidential run.
Some campaigns do hope to reach past activists and the press to appeal to a broader swath of voters. Maryland Democratic Party spokesman David Paulson hopes to steer as many people as possible to TheRealSteele.com, a site that features photos of Maryland Senate candidate Michael Steele embracing President Bush despite the Republican's attempts to distance himself from the national GOP.
"Ninety percent of people buying cars do research online first," contends Simon Rosenberg, president of Democratic group NDN. "In the Internet age, we can expect the same for politics."
One theory is that by cloaking these Web sites in humor, spoofers can draw in voters who otherwise might not be interested in politics. Patrick Ruffini, the Republican National Committee's Internet director, conceded that spoof sites "tend to be popular with activists and people who are already engaged," but he noted the success of the JibJab cartoons in 2004.
"We're living in a YouTube world," Ruffini pointed out, stressing the importance of viral marketing in politics.
Turning Laughs Into Votes
Internet consultant Pam Fielding, Democrat and president of the Internet production firm e-advocates, said messages must be very aggressive to cut through the clutter on the Web, and spoof sites present groups with the opportunity "to be as brazen as they can" because they "can get away with a lot more online."
Fielding's assessment is that the sites are "a lot like greeting cards -- they all have a punch line," and "they're designed to deliver a few short spoonfuls and make you laugh." She suggests the sites are best used to build mailing lists for campaigns, but as far as the content is concerned, "they're all an inch deep."
Political press operatives disagree. Ronayne explained, "The Internet affords us the opportunity to get more information to viewers than a 30-second TV ad or a newspaper."
And as November draws near and races become more competitive, the committees keep posting new sites. After the buzz of FancyFord.com against Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D) in Tennessee, the NRSC launched CluelessClaire.com, which paints Republican Sen. Jim Talent's challenger Claire McCaskill (D) as out of touch with Missouri voters. More recently, the organization unleashed FarOutBrown.com against Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) in Ohio and PedersonsLiberalExpress.com against Jim Pederson (D) in Arizona.
The sites "probably took all of an hour to come up with, because they just wrote themselves," Ronayne said.
For their part, the DSCC is up with VeryFancyFrist.com, a rebuttal to FancyFord.com that targets Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; DoubleTalkExpress.com, a jab at Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.; TooJuniorforJersey.com, which portrays New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr., as a frat boy in over his head; and GeorgeAllenforPrez.com, another parody on Allen's possible presidential ambitions. And in addition to ThePryceIsNotRight.com, the DCCC has three other sites targeted toward Republican incumbents in races deemed second-tier competitions.
In a midterm year when the Democrats seek to nationalize elections and the GOP tries to keep them local, fellow NRSC spokesman Brian Walton explained that most of the sites the organization maintains are issue-specific and done on a case-by-case basis.
Whether the branding tool and its use of humor will be effective this cycle remains to be seen, but according to Ronayne, partisan activists "need to take advantage of every medium out there."
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.